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Letters From Our Readers

June 23, 2009

Tech Funds
David Rotman’s cover story on technology funding in the federal stimulus bill (“Can Technology Save the Economy?” May/June 2009) generated a lively discussion online, with many readers criticizing the legislation and its goals. One commenter objected less to the billions that will be spent than to who will be handing out the money:

The issue for innovation and economic stimulus is not with how much money is invested, or in what industries, but how and with whom. The problem is that our tech transfer system is fundamentally flawed due to the influence by the entrenched over our political system and federal government, resulting in what we’ve seen in industry after industry–incremental innovation, when in fact the signs are clear that we need revolutionary innovation. … As this piece suggests, those of us on the front lines of real innovation–who are not too big to fail and are authentically attempting to overcome our many serious hurdles as a society–have nothing but barriers confronting us.
markm on 04/21/2009 05:24 p.m.

A letter writer took a different tack, lauding the stimulus package and making the case for why such massive investments are necessary if we are ever to transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable energy.

Economists should learn from the present crisis and stop thinking as if nothing has changed. New economies are emerging that will require more and more resources to support their growth, and if the development models inherited from the Industrial Revolution are not reconsidered, human activity will quickly deplete the inventories of nonrenewable resources and transform the biosphere into a dump.

Few people have a clear vision of the transition needed to implement sustainable models. The prime condition is to have an improved telecommunications network, so that knowledge can be distributed where it is needed, and not only where it makes financial sense for private telecommunication operators to put it. More generally, no sustainable development is possible without a massive investment in evenly distributed infrastructures. We have to replace the “bow and arrow” of our hunter-gatherer industrial civilization with the “plow and irrigate” distributed infrastructure of a sustainable clean economy. Only an emphasis on research and development can allow us to quickly achieve the right combination. And the technologies derived from this research will generate new jobs everywhere, because they will optimize the use of resources, including human resources. Yes, technology can save the economy–the sustainable economy that is the only ethical, decent reason we have to load future generations with huge amounts of debt.
Jean-Paul Vignal
Argyle, TX

Brain Matters
Emily Singer’s article on drugs that can alter traumatic recollections (“Manipulating Memory,” May/June 2009) had many readers pondering the ethical implications of the research.

The article gave me great hope for PTSD sufferers but also great fear for them, as well as for others who take the drugs. Surely during the effective period after taking drugs that block memory reconsolidation, they will have the same effects on other memories besides the ones that were deliberately brought to mind. If a PTSD sufferer undergoing the treatment thinks about his loved ones, will his love for them be lost or diminished? What about the many more people already taking propranolol? Are they losing their passion for arts, literature, their families, or their jobs just by thinking of those things while taking the drug?
Laurence Banner
Columbia, MD

Another reader sees a similarity between the way memories are handled in the brain and the way our bones adapt to external stimuli.

Emily Singer paints a picture of a brain that “erases” and then reconstructs memories (and presumably the physical synaptic underpinnings of memory as well).

I was amused by the several neuro­scientists who expressed disbelief that the brain would handle memories this way, because this is precisely what our bones do every day of our lives. In an attempt to be most adaptable to input from the external environment, osteoclasts remove the hard substrate of bone, while osteoblasts lay it back down again.

If there is persistent strain in one direction, the new bone is laid down in a slightly different way each time, so that over a short period of time, the bone’s shape changes by accommodating to the strain. If one views the brain as just another tissue adapting to a transient environment, it seems perfectly logical that memory reconsolidation functions in the same way: keeping what gets used and reused, and eventually overwriting or discarding that which is not recalled and needed. Sure, I wish I remembered more of the first 18 years of my life, but do I need that for managing today? Nope.
Bob Chapin
Preston, CT

Anonymity and Its Discontents
A few readers expressed worry over Tor, the technology described in David Talbot’s article on anonymity software (“Dissent Made Safer,” May/June 2009). One argued that “providing anonymity online effectively removes the one thing that stands in defense of a free Internet and freedom of speech–accountability.” Another points out that Internet censorship is not just a problem for people in the developing world.

I was very disappointed by what I consider to be blatant cultural bias in David Talbot’s article. The article cites government actions to filter or otherwise block Internet access by various Islamic countries, China, and Vietnam. But there was no mention whatsoever of actions by OECD countries to block online gambling (as in most U.S. states and some European countries) or hate sites (as in most European countries) or other types of content that is considered illegal or inappropriate according to national laws or customs (as in most countries around the world). I grant that the OECD countries do not usually use technical means to block websites, instead relying on laws. But such laws, and their enforcement, can be just as effective as technical means. Anonymity can be used to evade national laws as well as to evade technical barriers, so the issue is pertinent for all countries.
Richard Hill
Geneva, Switzerland

The Future of Journalism
Editor in chief Jason Pontin’s diagnosis of the problems plaguing print publications in the age of blogs and citizen journalism (“A Manifesto,” May/June 2009) ignited a contentious debate over how to save the traditional media and whether such an action is even desirable. The first reply to the expanded, online version of Pontin’s manifesto thought his recipe for media’s survival was a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some very nice points. Still, these are really just minor adjustments, a bit of fine tuning that may get print orgs through the short term, but unless traditional publishers can overcome their editorial ego they will ultimately fail. A new paradigm is brewing and unless editors can accept the collaborative nature of their relationship with the reader–and do everything in their power to cultivate it–everything else is meaningless.
mturro on 05/04/2009 at 9:26 p.m.

Which received the response:

Pontin’s observations about over-saturated circulation, advertising anarchy and commoditized content get at the root of what’s troubling the mainstream media. He’s not arguing for a return to the good old days, but rather pointing out that quality journalism does have a place in our society, along with other forms of media, and that business models need to change to support it. This is not a rant against unstoppable forces. It is an argument for accommodation and adaptation that preserves value.
pgillin on 05/05/2009 at 8:11 a.m.

Another commenter sees a technological solution around the corner:

Seems to me that everyone is looking in the wrong direction. Laser and inkjet printing technology keeps getting cheaper. With some innovation, a printer that incorporates duplexing and folding could provide an on-demand printed version of a daily newspaper, ready to go with a morning cup of coffee.
zozazumi on 05/05/2009 at 4:03 p.m.

A reader stresses the importance of communicating to the public what professional journalism is all about, and how valuable it can be when done well.

As a former print journalist who now teaches at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, one of the things I try to teach my students is that doing real journalism is hard work. It takes two full years to get across to them the difference between simply sitting down in front of a computer and tapping something out, and doing the sort of true research that journalism demands. That research–meeting people face to face, asking good questions, deciding what is credible and what is spin, separating new information from old, making it interesting–is tough. But it is something good journalists are paid to make look easy.

If publishers then give this content away instead of charging for it, readers are persuaded that news is essentially worthless and anyone can do it. Add in the fact that many powerful people also find journalism too intrusive for their tastes, and you have a craft that is under stress as never before.

So along with finding a business model that will allow real journalism to survive, we have to figure out how to teach our readers what journalism actually is, and how to tell the difference between it and the tidal wave of undifferentiated information flooding our lives every day. And we need to use every available means to make these arguments before the doomsayers’ prophecies become self-­fulfilling.
Jim Cunningham
Calgary, Alberta

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